The history of social work is replete with religious organizations that were the early founders of social work and prayed for, with, and over clients as a matter of course. However, as secular and governmental social service agencies assumed a greater share of society’s burden of need issues of religious freedom and separation of church and state began to crop up.
Mindful of their civic positions and the ethical standards that evolved within public social service agencies, secular social workers are now more reluctant to pray with clients. Although this reluctance is understandable, it tends to leave a gap between case workers and clients who identify passionately with their religious beliefs. Today's social workers trouble over their use of prayer as a part of their tool kit.
Let's Listen In...
- Edward Canda, MSW, PhD, and Leola Furman, MSW, PhD, (2019) argue that: “Attending to spirituality can help us put clients’ challenges and goals within the context of their deepest meanings and aspirations. Since social workers are committed to a whole-person-in-environment perspective, we need to take a holistic bio-psycho-social-spiritual-ecological view. On a pragmatic level, by considering the religious and spiritual facets of clients’ lives, we may identify strengths and resources that are important for coping, resilience, and optimal development.”
- According to Ann Callahan, PhD, LCSW, (2019) social workers can cultivate this kind of practice regardless of whether a patient identifies as spiritual or religious. In the case of a patient who identifies as having no such beliefs, a spiritually sensitive practice might focus on issues of life purpose or “the healing power of meaningful relationships.”
- Research suggests that diverse expressions of prayer—including practices such as devotional meditation, spiritual mantras, affirmations, and visualization—can be a useful resource for people struggling with physical health challenges (Ai et al., 2007; Gall & Cornblat, 2002). Prayer can also have a positive impact on those facing depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, or major life changes.
Others Hesitate...Let's Listen In...
Many social workers are reluctant to pray with clients for the following common-sense reasons:
- The client must initiate a request to pray. Professional ethics prohibit me from pressing my religious beliefs on a client. If they want to pray, that is good. If they want me to pray with them that can get a little sticky.
- If I have absolutely no understanding of a person’s spiritual perspective, I'm reluctant to appear to participate in prayers I don't even understand. At the least it is insincere and at the worst, disrespectful.
- I hesitate to participate in prayer not initiated by the patient but suggested by family members or third parties. The patient and I may not share the family's motives and often the vulnerable patient sees such participation as a betrayal.
- Unless there is a relationship of trust as well as an understanding of a patient’s spiritual and/or religious beliefs—its values, language, imagery, and practices—I tend to decline requests for prayer.
- Prayer is the chaplain's role. Social workers should never usurp this prerogative. It is not professional.
- I have no training in prayer. I can support the client or patient but only from the sidelines with silent encouragement. I have no idea how to participate in formal prayer.
- Social work ethics clearly prohibit the practice of religion as part of our professional services. I find it hard to draw the line when I am asked to pray with or for a client. Silent affirmation is usually as far as I feel comfortable going.
Prayer in its many forms can be a powerful resource for people who find themselves in difficult life circumstances. Indeed, the potential benefit of prayer as a coping mechanism for a wide range of human problems and challenges is well-documented. But everyone who participated in the discussion agreed that it is tricky for a social worker to include prayer as a formal part of their arsenal of care.